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Tattoos: Friend or Foe of Acupuncture?

By Tom Williams

As an acupuncturist, I get asked a lot about tattoos. Are they good? Are they bad? What happens if you get tattooed on an acupuncture point?

The relationship between acupuncture and tattooing is a curious one.

There are some interesting similarities. Acupuncture and tattooing both involve needles and have been used by humans for thousands of years, and both have recently moved from marginal to (almost) mainstream.

There are also many differences. Acupuncture is a medical system that originated in China. Licensure requires years of post-graduate study and is regulated by oversight boards. Tattooing is a largely unregulated decorative art with origins from various cultures throughout the world.

Yet despite the apparent differences between acupuncture and tattooing, I’ve long suspected some shared DNA.

For instance, many women with severe menstrual irregularities have tattoos on an acupuncture point that is commonly used for gynecological problems (Spleen 6, located on the lower leg). At least some patients seem to intuitively select therapeutic locations for tattoos.

New Attitudes About Tattoos, Same Relationship to Acupuncture

I first took notice of tattooing and its relationship to acupuncture in the mid-1980s, while practicing in sobering stations. The police and medics would bring in intoxicated people, and my main responsibility was to administer a series of acupuncture needles in the outer ear that help eliminate toxins. (Further reading: NADA protocol for smoking cessation.)

In addition, because street addicts often suffer from a number of associated health problems—depression, pain, indigestion and insomnia, to name just a few—I’d also needle points on the arms and legs. Again and again, I would roll up a sleeve or pant leg and find a tattoo exactly where I intended to place a needle.

This, of course, raises a question: Is it possible that tattoos on acupuncture points are actually the cause of what’s ailing a person rather than an unconscious attempt at treatment?

When I’ve asked patients about this, they almost always say the health problems came first, and the tattoos followed.

Twenty-five years ago, tattoos, while frequently seen at the sobering station, rarely appeared on the more affluent, educated patients in my private practice. Today they are common, especially among young people.

No matter the demographic or condition, I’ve continued to notice correlations between the locations of tattoos and acupuncture points.

Acupuncture and Tattooing May Have a Common Ancestor

These clinical observations about the relationship between acupuncture and tattoos are confirmed by an unlikely source, Ötzi the Ice Man.

Ötzi was discovered in 1991, after lying frozen in the Austrian Alps for over 5,000 years, carrying a pouch for medicinal plants. Scientific investigations revealed details about the medicine man’s condition when he died in 3,300 BC, around age 40. He had osteoarthritis of the lower back, and—lo and behold—he had tattoos on acupuncture points that are used to treat low back pain!

When I first came across media reports of this discovery, I was skeptical. After all, Ötzi was Northern European, and acupuncture originated in China. (Didn’t it?) Also, the body in question was very old. There are some pretty fine distinctions concerning the precise location of acupuncture points, so it seemed unlikely that they could be deciphered after all that time.

But when I saw photographs and read more detailed descriptions of the tattoo locations, my skepticism turned to astonishment.

Sure enough, Ötzi’s tattoos were on textbook acupuncture point locations. These are the same points that are used thousands of times a day to treat low back pain in modern acupuncture clinics around the world.

In addition to its better-known decorative purpose, tattooing has been practiced with a therapeutic intention for many thousands of years. With the benefit of written language and relatively stable cultural traditions, the ancient Chinese were able to refine and codify a pre-historic medical system that we now call traditional Chinese medicine.

In modern times, the practices of decorative tattooing and therapeutic needling have diverged into very different tribes. But they might claim a common ancestor—a wandering medicine man known as Ötzi.

Photo by Sara Calabro

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Comments

Eric
Reply

Love this! What are your thoughts about piercings?? I am constantly being asked by my pierced patients – and never quite know how to answer.

Tom Williams
Reply

Glad you enjoyed the article, Eric.

Tattooing—or piercing– an acupuncture point is going to stimulate that point, and its effect will be similar to a single, strong acupuncture treatment.

In general, stimulating an acupuncture point will either have a positive effect, or have no effect at all. Tattooing—or piercing—the wrong acupuncture point is unlikely to create problems. However, if a piercing site becomes infected… that’s a different story.

Piercing cartilaginous tissues is problematic for this reason, especially in the ear (the anti-helix, tragus, and anti-tragus). These areas have poor blood circulation and are prone to infection, plus they are loaded with important acupuncture points. Often, patients with an inflamed-looking piercing on the cervical/thoracic region of the ear will have ipsilateral neck and shoulder problems. These piercings should be removed and the infection treated. Same story for umbilical piercings: Very potent area energetically and prone to irritation and infection.

That said, I think piercing- like tattooing– can have unintended positive effects. I recently treated a very fatigued patient with chronic asthma and found a piercing at Du 14!

Chris O'Donnell
Reply

Interesting article. I think that once the ink has dried there will be little stimulation of the points after that. I also think the acupuncture will have a more therapeutic effect because the needles go deeper into the muscles and stimulate the deeper nerves. It was fun to read. Thanks.

Ka Hang Leoungk
Reply

This is really interesting, I remember wondering about this with my classmates at university when we used to joke about getting tattoos on Zusanli.

Very few of my patients have tattoos so thank you for sharing this. And by the way, it’s amazing to hear that you were doing acupuncture in sobering stations in the ’80s! Here in the UK we still have a way to go but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.

Rebecca Zook
Reply

The part about the ice man totally gives me goose bumps! Thank you for sharing, this is amazing…!!! I like to think about how this knowledge is part of our common human inheritance, perhaps subliminally/subconsciously….

Becky Peters
Reply

I am an acupuncturist in Austin, TX. I found this article very interesting. I just wanted to make a comment about the question about piercings.

I had a belly ring in my early 20s. I also had a great deal of digestive problems in those years. I went to a “meridian doctor” (I don’t remember his actual title). He was not an acupuncturist, but he tested points and meridians and looked for food intolerances. He gave me a strict diet to follow and suggested I take out my belly ring. He said that it could be impeding the flow of energy in the meridian that goes down the center of the front of my body, which is the Ren or Conception meridian. I didn’t know if I believed all that, but I thought it was more important for me to be healthy than to have a piercing, so I took it out. I also followed the diet for 3 months. My digestive issues got significantly better.

I think the practitioner who gave me that advice had a good theory, and I don’t think that constant stimulation with a thick metal piercing is necessarily a good thing. Acupuncture needles are very thin and only stimulate the point for a short period of time. There is such a thing as over-stimulating a point and over-treating, which can have detrimental effects on the body. So I have to respectfully disagree that a piercing cannot have an unhealthy effect on a point, meridian, or the body.

Sara
Reply

Thanks for sharing your experience, Becky. I also have heard stories from patients and other colleagues of instances where taking out a piercing improved symptoms. It’s great when acupuncturists comment with their experiences so that we get multiple perspectives.

Thanks for reading and participating. Hope all is well in Austin.

Sara

Bianca
Reply

When I was in Acupuncture school 10 years ago, I was also training for a Triathlon. From all of my running, I developed Plantar Fascitis. I was a Physical Therapist prior to becoming an Acupuncturist and had very little knowledge of meridians or philosophies of energy flow (or in my case “blockage” of flow).

I had a belly piercing above CV8 and thought nothing of it.

I was in a class dedicated to treating the myofascial system and we were covering foot disorders. I volunteered myself to be a patient as I was curious how the teacher was going to treat my painful plantar fascia. Palpation of the plantar surface was excruciating during the examination. After a quick abdominal evaluation, the teacher asked if I would take out my piercing. So, I did, right there on the table. He re-palpated my plantar surface and immediately the pain disappeared. I was shocked. My fellow student-colleagues were shocked. His response was that the CV line nourishes blood which nourishes muscles, fascia, ligaments, etc. When there is a disruption in the flow it will show up as pain somewhere. And did it ever.

Belly ring came out and never went back in! 10 years later and never a case of plantar fascia again! :-)

Emma Quine
Reply

Hi,
Interesting article!Ive found the same thing with inked clients, that they already have tattoos on the points I would select, especially on CV17 and PC6.
I too feel like tattoos are an intensive acupuncture session. Regarding piercings, I think maybe it creates a blockage. Hence, tattoos rule!!

Sharon Rose
Reply

As an acupuncturist, I have to toss in my agreement that piercings can have a negative effect. I had a similar experience with my own belly ring (long gone now) and I’ve seen it over and over with my patients. I actually think it’s the metal, not the hole, that causes the problem. People using bone or glass plugs don’t seem to have as much trouble.

Sally Waterhouse Acupuncture
Reply

Hi Sharon

The point you make with regards to glass and bone plugs is really interesting and not something that I have considered before. Thanks for sharing your findings.

Sally

[…] far as we know, all acupuncture did originate in China. (Although theories abound.) However, it didn’t take long for other countries, once they got their hands on acupuncture, […]

Eric
Reply

Interesting take on all things INK.

As a “person of color” (aka – well tattooed) acudoc I get asked often about the effects of tattooing and acupuncture. When I originally came across the article on Ötzi, it all made sense to me. Back when he was stomping around in his ‘hood’ acupuncture was performed by pricking and bloodletting… there were no filiform, stainless steel needles, only stone, wood and bamboo shoots which could be sharpened enough to break the skin.

With the situation of Ötzi’s bone disorders he probably had to be treated on a fairly regular basis for pain relief. Marking the points of treatment would have been tantamount to chart noting. This way, wherever Ötzi went, he could get some work done by another shaman, if not work on himself.

The ink most likely has little to no impact on the acupuncture point. However, it probably does affect the Wei Qi in the sense that the body is constantly trying to rid itself of the ink in the dermis, so larger tattoos may play a role in the health of the individual with regards to immune function and organ systems. On the other hand, deep tattooing can cause scars, which greatly impacts the flow of Qi in the meridians leading to frequent aches and pains, or becoming more prone to injury.

In reality it’s all just a “stab” at what’s going on, but it makes perfect sense to me!

Sara
Reply

Great perspective, Eric. Thanks for sharing!

Sara

mr. feral
Reply

thanks for this article, very interesting. I’m wondering if you have an opinion/any information on the effects of a mastectomy on meridians and such? it’s a removal of a lot of tissue so I’m wondering if that affects/can affect acupuncture points and meridians?

Tom Williams
Reply

Yes, almost any type of surgery can affect the function of one or more meridians. Scar tissue can create a lot of problems, depending on exactly where it is and how well healed it is: Red, raised or inflamed scars are trouble-makers, especially when they cross important meridian channels. Gall bladder surgeries and appendectomies can cause problems on the right side of the body, especially the shoulder. Bunion surgeries can affect the Spleen meridian (which runs up the outside of the big toe)which, in turn, can affect digestive function.

There may be many more important factors to consider before deciding if– and what kind– of surgery to have, especially with a serious diagnosis like breast cancer. However, a careful review of the type and location of scars from injuries–and from surgical incisions– is a critical part of an initial health history in an acupuncture practice.

Acupuncture can help to heal scar tissue and resolve seemingly unrelated problems elsewhere on the body.

Diana Moll
Reply

I think we can have this both ways. If a healthy channel is tattooed it can throw it off. If a an unhealthy one is tattoed the act can trigger the wei qi into rebalancing and healing that area. Probably someone else said this, I didn’t read all the comments.

Lisa Pool
Reply

I agree with the metal of a piercing being the potential problem. I find that folks with bone or other non-metal piercings don’t have the same issues as those with metal. I have seen mostly positive examples of tattoos that I think more speak to the connection that we have to our bodies and our natural inclination to stimulate an area. However, I don’t think we are encouraged to be in touch with our bodies and don’t understand the connection to the location of the tattoo and to our mental/emotional/physical ailment. I have recently seen an example of where a tattoo is creating an immune issue with a patient and I’m wondering if it has to do with the artist, the quality of ink or some other factor. She has been bothered by the tattoo almost since she got it and has had other tattoos with only positive results before this most recent. It is certainly an interesting topic and it was great timing that you did this article because this has been a topic that has been coming up recently here in my office over the last few weeks!

Visitor
Reply

Thanks a lot for this all the more interesting article than you are a specialist yourself !

Without knowing much about it -well, I’m into asian martial arts and have so strong links with the related cultures and spirituality-, I got myself a piercing on a chosen point of the ear and a self-designed little tattoo on an acupncture point from the ankle. I can tell I have absolutely no trouble at all with both of them.

I simpl wanted to react -positively- on your astonishment about acupuncture being used eleswhere than China. My answer is : of course ! The deeper you look into ancient traditions throughout the world and the ages, the most astonished you will be by all the similarity, whether it is in medecine, music, spiritualities -although they will have different ways to express them, of course-. Did you know, for example, that most asian traditions and martial arts take in fact their roots in India ? I share your enthusiasm and happy that other people take care of looking into it.

Even though this comment is quite late : thanks again and great going ;)

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